Ex-Yum Brands CEO: How active learning took me from trailer parks to the helm of a $32B corporation

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When I was in my late thirties, I lobbied to become the chief operating officer of Pepsi’s beverage division in the east—and I got the job. I was a bit young for the role, but I had a bigger hurdle to overcome: I had almost no operations experience. My career up to that point had been in marketing. I had convinced the CEO and the chairman to take a chance on me by making them a risky offer. If I couldn’t prove myself in six months, they could fire me or demote me. Neither option would help my career.

Why did I feel confident enough to take the risk?

I knew something vital about myself: I was an active learner. Put me in just about any role or team, and I would hunt for sound ideas and insights, anywhere I could find them, and then pair them with action and execution. It’s a habit and mindset I’ve seen in most leaders I admire and who I learned from throughout my career.

Active learning was critical for me because I didn’t have the same level of formal education that many of my colleagues had. I had a journalism degree from a state school and no Ivy League MBA. And because my father marked latitudes and longitudes with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey team, I had grown up moving from town to town every few months, living in more than 30 trailer parks in 23 states before high school.

That’s where my active learning habits began. When I was in elementary school, my mother worried that moving so often was hurting my education. My teacher in Dodge City, Kansas, Mrs. Anschultz, reassured her. “David has already lived in more places than most of these kids will visit in their lifetimes,” she said. “Your son is getting the best education of anybody I know.”

I was learning how to learn—as much as possible, from as many different people as possible, as fast as possible. I was learning that you never know where the next important idea might come from, and you shouldn’t judge people or the value of their insights based on their background.

Being an active learner is how I developed a reputation for solving big problems and turning around teams and brands. It’s how I succeeded as COO, which launched me on to my eventual role as CEO of Yum Brands. It’s how I helped grow Yum’s market cap from $8 billion to $32 billion during my 17-year tenure. And it’s how I make a positive difference in people’s lives today.

I developed the vital discipline of learning from anybody, any experience, and any new environment that had something valuable to offer.

The first thing I did in my new role as COO, for instance, was tour our bottling plants. I knew that was where I would learn about the root causes of our big problems and the best solutions. I didn’t go to the managers, though. I got up at 5 a.m. and talked to the route salespeople, sometimes riding along with them to meet our customers. I spent hours with people working on the line and in the warehouses. “What do we need to do better?” I asked. “What are we getting right?” I learned that our forecasting was off. We were constantly running out of stock. We couldn’t get product out of the warehouse fast enough. And morale was low. When I debriefed the plant managers, they would say, “How did you find this out so fast?”

I asked. I observed. I paid attention to the ideas and the lessons that were offered up. This discipline, which I applied from my early days as an up-and-comer in marketing onward, helped me get up to speed in every role faster so that I could make a positive impact faster. It had a big impact on my career trajectory.

One danger of leadership is that as you rise into higher positions, you can lose touch with reality, let your ego take over, and stop listening. Given what sometimes felt like my lack of pedigree, I could have fallen into that trap. But I saw leaders like that and how it affected their teams and their results, so I steadily worked to develop and maintain an open, curious, and humble mind.

I learned to ask better questions that could help me understand the fundamentals, see the world the way it really was, expand our options, and get clear on the right action. For instance, if I was worried we might be stagnating or missing an opportunity, I would ask, “If some new hotshot came in and took over, what would they do?” I would ask my team “what could we do” instead of “what should we do” to broaden their thinking. In tough situations with other teams or organizations, I would ask, “What could be possible if we extended trust first?” We constantly rated ourselves against our competitors and asked, “What could we learn from them about how to win?” These kinds of questions increased the flow of great ideas on my teams.

For instance, I was hired to lead marketing for Pizza Hut, then owned by PepsiCo, about 10 years before my COO gig began. Pizza Hut’s numbers needed help, so one question we asked was, “How could we get weekday volumes much closer to weekend volumes?” It spurred a bunch of successful ideas from the team, especially Kids’ Night on Tuesdays. Kids got a free personal pan pizza and a little party kit with the order of a regular pizza—which gave us those weekend-level volumes.

Career step by career step, I learned by doing the things that needed doing or that could make the biggest difference, like tackling new challenges, doing the hard thing, or doing the right thing. When we learn by doing, we’re discovering the insights that come from action. Two habits that I became known for were pursuing joy and recognizing the team members who contributed to our success.

We learn more when we’re feeling positive emotions, and I consistently made career decisions that allowed me to do work I enjoyed with people I loved, to produce great results and have fun doing it. A few years after I was COO, when I was president of KFC, I was offered the role of president of Frito Lay, a great opportunity. I turned it down, though, because I had discovered how much I loved the restaurant industry. And eventually that decision led to the opportunity to lead Yum.

At Yum we developed a culture of recognition right from the start. It allowed us to identify the behaviors that would lead to our success, hunt for those behaviors in our teams, showcase them across the company, and make people feel as though their contributions mattered and were valued. We became known for it, and I attribute much of our incredible growth and success to what we learned from our engaged team members because of it.

Here’s the lesson I ultimately learned as I advanced in my career: Active learning is the foundation of just about every other important leadership habit. When you learn with purpose and with an eye for making a positive difference, the result is greater possibilities, for you and the people and teams around you.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.



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